As many organisations contemplate a return to the physical workspace, new questions are arising from staff and leaders alike. One thing is for sure: we are not returning to the workplaces that we left!

Pre-COVID, flexible working arrangements have been on the agenda in many organisations with varied success in managing the tension between work outcomes and staff preferences. Large government departments and corporates often spent over a year planning for a shift to activity based working with mixed success.

Yet in a period of 10 days the whole county was working and studying entirely from home. 

As Heraclitus mused, “No man ever enters the same river twice, for it’s not the same man and it’s not the same river”.   We know likewise, that the organisations that we left are not the same ones we will return to.  

So what aspects are important to address as conditions of re-entry:

Trust:

Talk of flexibility is everywhere, but there is a deeper issue at hand – trust.  Staff in most organisations are expressing that pre-COVID they were not trusted to work from home. Yet, some organisations have increased their productivity during this phase.  Staff are asking “Now do you trust us to work according to our own preferred rhythm?”
A survey by Gartner, Inc. revealed 30% of the workforce was working remotely at least part of the time before the pandemic, it is expected that 41% will be doing so post COVID19 at least on a part-time basis. 

Give/ Take:

This speaks to a deeper issue of exchange and what has been given and what has been taken.  Some leaders are aware that staff are lucky to have work and many workers are aware that their company has benefited from the free resources available via their home.  For those living in restricted spaces and working out of a bedroom it is more of an ask than it may be for others.    Staff may have commandeered their commute time to increase their productivity even with reduced wages.  They may be asking “What will you expect when I return to work?”

Remote leadership:

This is a new leadership skill that has not been taught in traditional leadership development programs. It is leading a remote workforce, or for many a mixture of remote and present.  Expectations need careful management and during a time when revenue focus is a mandate, the human factor could easily be overlooked. 

Good Endings:

For those who are down-sizing, there needs to be an open acknowledgment of those who have left for their contribution during their tenure while also thanking those who remain to keep the organisation alive. Giving voice to the painful fact that in many organisations the entire workforce may not be needed through a recession manages the risk of survivor guilt and disengagement.

As many leaders work in resetting the company narrative and strategy, these questions of trust and healthy exchange will need careful consideration.   When planning re-entry, a focus on rebuilding a sense of belonging will form the antidote to a natural anxiety of re-engaging with a world that not too long ago was considered too dangerous to occupy.  

How will you welcome your people back? What will be your new normal AND will it be normal at all?   

By Vanessa Fudge
Leading Well